Lee Chi-yuarn (李啟源) is a director who does not like to repeat himself. His Chocolate Rap (巧克力重擊, 2006) was a motivational hip-hop movie aimed at teens. In Beautiful Crazy (亂青春, 2008), he tried to capture the fluidity of time, memory and fleeting youth with non-chronological montages and enigmatic characters.
With Blowfish (河豚), Lee finally achieves a balance between style and content. Stripped down to a few dialogues and a seemingly effortless portrayal of everyday life, the love story between two lone souls is told through acute feelings and nuanced emotions, fine performances and a well-written script that Lee co-developed with the novice but talented actress Vicci Pan (潘之敏).
The story centers on Xiao-zhun (Pan), a young woman who works as an elevator operator at a department store. Like the service industry worker she is trained to be, Xiao-zhun is quiet, compliant and even manages to keep a polite smile on her face when catching her boyfriend in bed with another woman.
Hoping to find a better home for her pet blowfish, Xiao-zhun sells it on an auction Web site. She delivers it herself and ends up having sex with the buyer (Wu Kang-jen, 吳慷仁) in his living room.
Xiao-zhun moves in with the stranger, a baseball coach in a small town who is waiting for the return of his wife, Flora (Angel Yao, 姚安琪), who has run away with another man. When the coach goes to work, Xiao-zhun likes to try on the colorful dresses that belong to Flora. She seems to enjoy her new life, even if she has to play the role of another woman.
The two live as husband and wife, and their feelings toward each other evolve. Finally one day, the coach wants to know the young woman’s real name.
Devoid of high-pitched drama and a narrative climax, the film often revolves around daily routines such as eating, sleeping and taking a bath. Camera movements are kept to a minimum, and the static cinematography by John Han (韓允中) helps to create a simple, pure space where the audience can enter the characters’ lives “without interruption,” to use the director’s words.
Lee uses the music of Yoshihiro Hanno, who first worked with the director on Beautiful Crazy, to similar ends as in the earlier film.
“His music is like natural elements,” the director told the Taipei Times. “They live around us, but we barely sense their existence. To me, it’s the best soundtrack ... I don’t want to tell the audience how to feel through music.”
The actors in Blowfish rely on body gestures and facial expressions to convey thoughts and feelings. Promising young actress Pan’s genuine portrayal of the taciturn and slightly odd Xiao-zhun belies the fact that this is her big-screen debut.
Lee’s confidence in his cast is apparent. Having taught acting classes at Taipei National University of the Arts (國立臺北藝術大學), the director is known for collaborating intensively with young actors. In the case of Xiao-zhun, Lee and Pan built the character together. They did not devise plots, but engaged in a game of role-playing, putting the character in different situations and imagining how she would react.
“It is a strange thing to say, but I don’t understand the characters I write. I don’t know which brand of toothpaste she uses. Is she a fast eater? Which hand does she use to eat noodles?” Lee said. “But if I work with an actor, I can understand the person well. I will know when she laughs or doesn’t laugh, the pitch of her voice and all kinds of details.”